A Fine Mess, Episode 4: Songwriter Fred Wilhelm
“I’ve written well over 100 songs a year for the last 13 years, and some of them are good. Some I had to write to get to the ones behind them.”
Just out of high school in the fall of 1992, I stopped showing up for my classes at community college so I could focus my energies on publishing a music paper — a poorly thought-out decision that would lead to catastrophe in pretty much every way but one: it led to my introduction to the Rails, a New York duo whose debut album, Wonderfull, showed up in my mailbox without invitation or expectations.
I’ll never forget the first time I listened to Wonderfull — my desk was always crowded with stacks of new CDs by name-brand artists in those days, but this low-fi cassette by a pair of guys I’d never heard of drew me in from the opening lines of the first track, “Far & Wide.” I didn’t move from my chair until the album’s final notes faded from the speakers — a rarity for me even way back then — and when I did get up, it was to dial the number in the press kit, which is the first time I talked to Fred Wilhelm.
Fred and I have developed a close friendship and had a lot of adventures since then, including the years when he wrote and recorded for my fledgling record company (again: an almost total catastrophe whose small scraps of salvation were largely derived from his efforts), and when I started thinking about recording A Fine Mess, I knew I needed to make him one of my first guests. This obviously wasn’t our first conversation, but it’s still full of questions I’d never asked him before, some of which surprised me — and Fred’s answers were full of the insight, humble candor, and self-effacing humor that make him such a relatable voice as a songwriter and recording artist.
This show is all about the often messy creative process, and we delve into it during this episode, from the question of why we create and how we find our voice to the tricky business of putting up or shutting up when we find ourselves on the precipice of achieving our greatest artistic goals. You may not have heard of Fred Wilhelm, but if you’ve ever had a dream, I think his words here will resonate — maybe even as powerfully as that unexpected cassette resonated for me more than 20 years ago.